PINEHURST, N.C. -- William J. Bennett, chairman-designate of the Republican Party, appeared yesterday to soften his position on the emotionally charged subject of affirmative action.
Addressing a gathering of Republican governors, his first public appearance since President Bush picked him to head the GOP, Mr. Bennett steered clear of the racial issue that many Democrats think is becoming a central element of the GOP's political strategy.
Afterward, speaking with reporters, Mr. Bennett tried to clarify his affirmative-action views, which he said had been "overinterpreted" as the first shot of the 1992 campaign.
"What I said is not that I'm opposed to affirmative action," he said. "But I am opposed to counting by race." He opposes racial quotas, he said, but added that he agrees with certain college admissions procedures that favor blacks over whites if the goal is to produce a racially diverse student body.
"When we found out at the Department of Education that if a black high school student had a B average he had a better chance of going to college than a white student, we thought that was dynamite," said Mr. Bennett, who served as secretary of education under President Ronald Reagan. "Diversity is not a bad aim, in and of itself. That diversity could be, under certain circumstances, a defensible end."
Last month, the incoming party chairman strongly attacked affirmative action and said he welcomed a debate with Democrats over the issue. His remarks, on the heels of the successful use of racial quotas by Republican candidates this fall, led Democrats to charge that Republicans plan to use the issues of affirmative action and job quotas to divide white and black voters in upcoming elections.
Polls show that an overwhelming number of whites oppose job quotas, while blacks favor them.
"Under some affirmative-action schemes, black people are preferred to white people on the basis of their race. It's exactly what we should have a debate about," Mr. Bennett told a Nov. 26 news luncheon in Washington.
At the lunch, Mr. Bennett, who campaigned for North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms' re-election, defended as "perfectly legitimate" the senator's controversial use of the racial quota issue in a campaign commercial.
Yesterday, Mr. Bennett said the Helms ad, in which a white job applicant learns that he has lost out to a less-qualified minority applicant, "raised an appropriate question."
Some Democrats fear their party may be playing into Republican hands again by making plans to reintroduce early next year a civil rights bill that Mr. Bush vetoed in October.